Back in the Old Days

TURLOCK

Sunday afternoon.  Sitting in our car in front of a Wal-Mart on the drive back from my parents’ house down south.  My wife ran in for a minute to get a couple of things, so I get to people watch in my air conditioned cocoon, buffered from the 104°F heat just outside my door.

I feel sorry for the cart guy as he leans into his conga line of shopping trolleys in the searing sun.  Here comes a young woman in an orange T-shirt (logo illegible from this distance) and bright purple hair.  We once had a Chevy that color, but I never associated it with a part of the human body.  Out comes a middle aged woman pushing an empty cart.  You have to wonder what’s up with that.  Wouldn’t you leave the cart in the store if you couldn’t find what you’re looking for?  Maybe she needed the cart to lean on.  The woman’s deeply wrinkled face makes her look old, perhaps a legacy of years of nicotine.  Indeed, she has a cigarette hanging from her lips; the second she crosses the store’s threshold into the dreadful heat, she lights it.

My thoughts drift away to our Fathers’ Day visit to my dad.  We went out to dinner to a local Italian place on Friday night (I need the gluten-free pizza crust, please, and here’s a little Baggie of vegan cheese to use in place of the mozzarella, okay?) and to a steak house on Saturday (an order of broccoli, please, steamed with no butter, and a baked potato with just chives; also a salad with no cheese, croutons or dressing).  Family occasions can be a challenge for gluten-free vegans.

It seems that I seldom come away from a visit to my parents without at least a few stories that I hadn’t heard before.  I need to hear these while I still can.

This time, I learned that my uncle, age 90, is one of the youngest veterans of World War II.  He was sent overseas with the Army Air Corps at the very end of the war; when the war ended, he was still eighteen years old.

Then there’s my dad’s take on history.  During the Great Depression, he tells me, the life expectancy of an American male was 62 years.  A guy who had a job would remain employed until he was too old and sick to work.  Then he’d spend a year sitting on a park bench.  Then he died.  There was no Social Security.  No one took care of you, my father went on; people took care of themselves.  Before FDR’s New Deal, he told me, our guarantees extended to life, liberty and property.  How you ate and paid your rent was up to you.

My father seems to long for those days.  His ideas put me in mind of Archie and Edith Bunker, opening each episode of  “All in the Family” by singing “didn’t need no welfare state/everybody pulled his weight.”

I have some questions.  Was it really like that?  Or is it more like wearing rose-colored glasses regarding the Good Old Days?  How did the old, sick guy on the park bench support himself for that year?  And what about his wife?

I suspect that part of the answer lies in extended families supporting each other.  I’ve been rereading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath lately, and it is not lost on me that the Joads dragged the elders of the clan along with them as they headed west, even though Grandpa had to be drugged to prevent him from stubbornly remaining behind.

Just as my octogenarian father waxes wistful over a time long gone, I wish we still lived in an age when people stuck together.  The breakdown of the American family over many decades results in people in need having no support (of either the financial or the emotional kind).  We have elderly folks living by themselves in little apartments, spouses dead or divorced, children moved to distant cities and states to pursue their own lives and dreams.  Perhaps striking out on their own and leaving family behind is reflective of the pursuit of happiness.  After all, family members often don’t get along.  And yet, in the days before public assistance, it seems that families had to get along just to survive.

It makes me sad that we seem to cherish the freedom to worship the self and ignore others and, ultimately, the freedom to end up old and alone.

 

Breakfast of Road Warriors

riverside-marriott-lobby

Lobby of the Marriott Convention Center, Riverside, California

RIVERSIDE

Vegan on the Road

A perpetual concern of travelers everywhere is what to do for breakfast.  Lack of planning on the part of the traveler is common, and the quality of the traveler’s experience is thus largely in the hands of one’s innkeeper.  Unless you’re staying at a “bed and breakfast,” chances are better than average that you will be in for something inadequate, disgusting or, if you’re particularly unfortunate, both.

About the time you open your eyes and realize that you are not at home in the comfort of your own bed, but in a hotel room in a strange city, you will hear your stomach rumbling and you will begin to wonder where sustenance is to be had.  If, at check-in, you spied a sign at the front desk indicating “morning coffee available in lobby,” you know you are at the mercy of what’s available nearby.  This is when one’s stomach expresses the fervent wish that the local amenities extend beyond microwaving a pre-packaged burrito from 7-11.

We road warriors are dedicated to the truth that there is much work to be done and that such work must be fueled by some form of morning sustenance beyond mere caffeine.

My employer has informed me that I am not permitted to seek reimbursement for the cost of my morning meal if breakfast comes free with the room, even if it is a “continental breakfast” consisting of coffee and donuts.  The fact that I am unable to partake of either of the aforementioned delicacies does not appear to sway company policy in my direction.  Thus, I am better off staying the night in accommodations that blithely ignore their guests’ need for food in the A.M.

One way to assure morning prandial satisfaction is to bring one’s own food.  This is an attractive option for those with special needs, such as my fellow vegan and gluten-free eaters.  The success of such plan, however, is largely dependent on the presence of a refrigerator and microwave in one’s hotel room.  While such amenities are common these days (at least in North America), they are by no means universal.  In fact, may I suggest that the likelihood of finding food storage and preparation facilities located in one’s guest room is inversely proportional to the quality of the hotel?  One is more likely to find a micro and fridge in Room 108 at Motel 6 than in a 20th floor suite at the Hilton.  Then again, who wants to bring one’s own food when local culinary delights await?

Lesson learned:  When making reservations for business travel, be sure to order a refrigerator and microwave rather than waiting until check-in and hoping for the best.  That is, unless you want to end up like me, with a bagful of hard potatoes that you can’t cook.

I do have certain gluten-free vegan coping mechanisms that I use on the road.  Everywhere I go, I search for Thai restaurants.  This is not because I’m crazy about Asian food, but because most Thai restaurants offer at least a few dishes that can be prepared both vegan and gluten-free.  Pad se ew, please.  No meat, just tofu, no egg, no fish sauce, no soy sauce.  Those are real, gluten-free rice noodles, right?  Not so hot that I turn into a fire-breathing dragon, please.

As it is not my habit to eat Thai food for breakfast, however (even if there were any Thai restaurants open at that hour), I generally look for a place where I can find some fruit.  Now, my habitual breakfast at home is either coconut milk yogurt with banana and raisins or a “protein bowl” (garbanzos and tofu).  But I challenge you to find an American restaurant serving such delights at seven in the morning.  I frequently end up throwing a banana, a slice of gluten-free millet bread and a bottle of water into a bag as I hurry out the hotel door to an early meeting.  I hope to cadge a cup of tea at the meeting venue, but I am seldom so lucky in this coffee-devoted nation of ours.

As a case in point, a few days ago I was in Los Angeles.  After a night in a motel in a seedy area of town marked by the repetitive wailing of car alarms and sirens, I walked into a meeting and was surprised by a breakfast spread just waiting for the participants to dig in.  The viands consisted of turkey, ham, cheeses and rolls to make sandwiches, assorted muffins and, of course, coffee.  (Query:  Who the heck eats such crap at eight o’clock in the blessed morning?  When I asked this of my mother, she replied: “A farmer.”). Honestly, it’s such a ray of sunshine to be presented with all the lovely comestibles that a gluten-free vegan would be delighted to encounter.  And, of course, not a cup of tea in sight.  I sighed and dug in my bag for my banana and millet bread.

Here at the Marriott Convention Center in Riverside, California, one evening I wistfully reviewed the room service breakfast menu and its checkboxes and found the usual variety of egg dishes, meat and cereal.  When completed and hung on the door knob, a hot breakfast would appear, as if by magic, during the 15-minute interval of the guest’s choice (6 to 11 am).  And, just as magically, $15 to $18 per person would be added to the guest’s hotel bill.  Perhaps, I wondered, if I closed my eyes, recited an incantation and wished upon a star, the menu would magically be altered to include berries with almond milk or a breakfast sandwich of soy cheese and grilled tomatoes on rice bread.  Sigh.  In some alternate universe, perhaps.

Then a funny thing happened. While I leafed through the hotel’s amenities brochure and noticed the availability of a breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant for the princely price of $19 per person, my wife attempted in vain to get the flat screen TV to work.  Not being wealthy, I couldn’t imagine spending nearly $40 (plus tip) for my wife and I to have breakfast.  After all, my employer allows me to expense the grand sum of seven dollars for my morning meal.  Perhaps I do inhabit an alternate universe after all.

I phoned the front desk to report that the telly was on the fritz.  The staff member on duty apologized and sent up a technician.  He messed around with the thing but had no more success than we did.  After he went off to contact the hotel’s internet service provider, my wife called the front desk again to ask about checkout time.  The same chirpy staff lady asked whether our TV had been repaired.  When we assured her that it had not been, she offered to have us change rooms.  No need, said my wife.  We were heading off to sleep anyway.  Apologizing once more, the desk clerk offered us two free breakfast buffets for our trouble.  Hallelujah!  Perhaps my awkward abracadabras worked the right spell after all.

Visiting Riverside is always a slightly strange experience for me, tinged with more than a bit of déjà vu.  My former employer was based in Riverside and, even though my work location was a three-hour drive east, out in the desert, I had to come into town two or three times each year for meetings.  Ironically, now that I work in northern California, I find myself still doing the same (although it’s a six-hour drive each way from Sacramento).

My former employer always put me up a few blocks away at the Mission Inn, deemed by many to be a premiere accommodation due to its historic setting and the ghosts of the past that some say continue to inhabit its walkways and guest rooms.  Personally, I never cared for it, finding the atmosphere dark, drafty and just a wee bit pretentious, as might be expected of some English countryside manor with a 17th or 18th century pedigree.

While the quaintness, antiques and Spanish architecture of Mission Inn appeal to many, I much prefer the modern amenities offered by the Marriott.  While the venue levies separate charges for most of these, those in the know are able to take advantage of the broad leeway given staff to satisfy guests.  In other words, many of the fees can be waived if you just ask (particularly if you mention that you’ve stayed with them before and that your employer has certain expectations in regard to costs).  Not only did we have $25 in wifi connection charges waived (“we still have to work, you know”), we also obtained free parking and an upgrade that allowed us access to the 12th floor concierge lounge (where we watched the Cubs and Indians duke it out on a big screen TV back in September).  Oh, and about that concierge lounge:  They serve juice and pastries in the morning and appetizers in the evening.  Appetizers?  Try sushi, curry, salad and desserts.  Who needs dinner?  As a vegan GFer, I could chow down on raw veggies, hummus and fresh fruit.

Riverside Buffet.JPG

Breakfast buffet at the Riverside Marriott

Which brings me to the $40 breakfast buffet for two that we were comped.  Although it was a weekday, a cook was preparing omelettes to order.  There were scrambled eggs, boiled brown eggs and several of my wife’s favorite breakfast items, including bacon, sausage, yogurt and bread and English muffins for toasting.  GF vegan?  I chowed down on oatmeal with raisins, potatoes and fresh fruit (cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and watermelon).  They even had almond milk on hand for my tea, a rarity on the road.  The staff was so accommodating that I wonder whether they would have sent out to Whole Foods or Sprouts had I asked for gluten-free millet bread.

My fellow breakfasters ranged from men discussing football and billion-dollar deals to an older couple traveling with a squirming three year old who was Face Timing the folks back home.  “Behave,” I heard her mom warn from halfway across the room (and, likely as not, from halfway across the country). “Don’t cause Grandma any trouble.”

 

 

Just So Yummy (A Vegan Allegory)

Among the many difficulties of eating a vegan diet is that you are constantly challenged — by well-meaning family members, by coworkers, by mere acquaintances.  My advice to anyone considering going vegan is that this aspect of the lifestyle is far more difficult than the matter of finding something to eat.  The fact is that, without adequate support, you’re always going to be the odd person out.

What is worse, however, is that you can count on being frequently called upon to defend your practices and beliefs.  It’s a bit different than practicing a minority religion (which, as a Jew, I do as well), as the United States and most western nations have laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion.  While there are exceptions, for the most part you can plan on those raising an eyebrow at your turban, yarmulke or hijab keeping their bigoted opinions to a nudge and a wink, or to comments made outside your presence.  Vegans have the advantage of not being identifiable by external symbols.  Some vegans choose to take advantage of this fact by staying “in the closet” to the extent possible, at least outside of safe spaces.  The irony, of course, is that there are no “safe spaces” for vegans.  Once your dietary preferences become known, you should expect pot shots and low blows to hit you from any corner, including from those with whom you have regular contact.  Not only is this awkward, but it’s also pointless and unnecessary.  So you can understand why there are times when I feel that it is always open season on vegans.  Simple acceptance of a minority viewpoint would be great.

Oh, but it gets worse still.  After a few years of this, just when you feel settled into a pattern of healthy vegan eating, just when you think you have the right comebacks for almost any remark, you may find yourself lapsing into a morass of self-doubt.  Is always being different really worth it?  Trying to be an educator and a role model gets old and you have to wonder if there is some truth to the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

The pressure to conform is even greater for vegans who are also gluten-sensitive.  Now you have not one, but two different types of deviation from the “standard American diet” (I love that this is abbreviated SAD).  Being gluten-free is something that people can at least understand, even if they think that accommodating you is a serious pain in the ass.  There is not much that anyone can say about dietary restrictions resulting from health problems.  But why do you have to be a vegan on top of it?  Is it really necessary to be so difficult?

I try to avoid this line of destructive thinking as much as possible.  I bristle for a moment at insensitive comments, then turn the other cheek.  But it all hit me like a tidal wave this past weekend, and at an unexpected moment.  I say “unexpected,” as you don’t usually expect encountering a relatively familiar situation to serve as a trigger.  I am learning that being a vegan can mess with your head.  Has anyone else out there experienced this?

During a most enjoyable weekend away in Reno, we considered having dinner at one of the casino buffets.  My wife doesn’t particularly care for buffets, but I have always liked the variety, all the more because there is likely to be something even a gluten-free vegan can eat.  It’s also nice to be able to serve yourself rather than engaging in the usual eating out litany of “no butter, no sauce, steamed only, does that have flour in it?”

My wife stood at the buffet entrance while I asked to go in and take a look at the offerings to determine whether this was going to work or not.  A quick walk-by looked like it would be possible.  There were plenty of salad fixings, garbanzo beans for protein, fruit.  Then I ambled past a large pile of breaded, fried fish.  I should explain that, in my former life, this was one of my absolute favorite foods.  I would indulge at any opportunity.  I can wax nostalgic about wonderful fried fish I’ve enjoyed from Maine to California.

Suddenly, I wanted to grab a plate, pile it high with fish and tear off the breading so that I wouldn’t end up in the rest room all night.  It was a weird feeling.  And, with a little shudder, I turned around and walked out.  We had dinner elsewhere.

I gained an interesting insight from the experience.  How could I be so easily tempted to throw away my beliefs for a plate of food?  This brought to mind Esau who, in the Book of Genesis, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.

The visual cue of that fried fish struck a primordial nerve that screamed “I want it!”  This is not too different from the 1960s mantra “if it feels good, do it.”  Or, to be more accurate, “if it feels good, screw everyone and everything and just do it.”  I believe the proper adjective for this sentiment is “hedonistic” (although, perhaps “selfish” would be more fitting).  The implication is one of “you deserve it, so don’t overthink it.”

In fact, Big Food and Madison Avenue would rather that we don’t think about what we eat at all.  We’ll keep making tasty stuff, you pay us money and eat it.  End of story.  It is highly inconvenient when consumers begin to think about where their food came from, how humans and animals suffered to bring it to their plates and what alternatives might be out there.  My cynical side has long believed that it’s all about money, but I now realize that, while it is about money, it’s more than that.  It’s about the idea that denying one’s self anything is the epitome of uncool.  How others are affected is not supposed to come into the picture.  The advertising world counts on the predominance of the brain candy that is the moment of “I want it!”  It’s nothing short of pandering to our inner three year olds.

However, we are not three year olds.  As adults, we have the capacity to appreciate how our actions and words affect others.  Those whose psychological makeup does not permit this are often labeled “sociopaths.”  Who cares what anyone else thinks or feels?  It feels good!

This is where fried fish comes in.  That pile of food represents many dead sea creatures, hooked in the mouth or strangled in a net and dragged bloodied onto a boat to head for “processing.”  I have to wonder what that sharp hook piercing my mouth would feel like or how I would thrash with suffocation as I was pulled from the water and left to die.  And why should this happen?  So that my skin could be flayed off and my body cut up and frozen to eventually be dredged in bread crumbs and thrown into a vat of hot oil.  Over six billion fish are killed annually so they can go down our gullets.

Fortunately for most of us, the pain, suffering and death experienced by marine life is largely out of sight.  It’s convenient that we don’t have to witness the ugliness that occurs on the way to our plates.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The disembodied piece of protein before us doesn’t even look as if it were ever an animal.  Thank goodness we don’t have to think about it.  That way we can be like everyone else instead of being some weirdo who doesn’t eat meat.  That way we can go back to the buffet for seconds.

After all, it’s just so yummy.

 

Cattle Country

Interstate 40 sign

SHAMROCK, TEXAS

Just west of the Oklahoma line, we pull off Interstate 40 to find a room for the evening in this middle-of-nowhere town on the old Route 66. We are exhausted and I just want to crawl under the covers and commune with the backs of my eyelids. I am glad that the clerk is so matter of fact, as I don’t feel like chatting. Thank you, Mr. Desk Guy, for not asking about our entire itinerary like the clerk in Quincy, Florida did. There, at another nondescript crossroads in another state’s panhandle, the motel clerk’s desk, behind a Plexiglas window, contained a model of the hotel’s shower setup. I was treated to a demonstration of how to turn on the water and how to switch the spigot from tub to showerhead. I must have registered a look of disbelief, as the cheerful clerk asked “Should I show you again?”

Here in Texas, I am grateful that all I need to do is mumble the magic words “we need a room,” upon which the clerk takes care of the rest without fanfare or foofaraw. Coffee, tea and hot chocolate in the lobby in the morning. I try not to roll my eyes. (I don’t know about you, but what I need in the morning is food. Most hotels have at least a free continental breakfast, a bagel and juice or something. Haven’t you heard, Mr. Desk Guy?). No, we don’t have any children or pets. I grab the key and go.

As conscious as I am of animal welfare issues, I am glad that I don’t have a pet in this place. As soon as I pull up to the door of the room, I notice a gray and white cat, probably feral, sniffing around. And when I begin to unload the bags, I am greeted by a pair of black cats who walk right up to me as if this is their standard routine. In the gathering dusk, I almost don’t notice them in their pitch black fur, but the shining yellow-green eyes give them away. I hope they don’t end up running into our motel room and under the bed while we are unloading. Let’s just say that my wife does not care for cats. At all.

This is cattle country. Perhaps the most prominent feature on the featureless landscape of north Texas is the herds of beef cattle and the enormous feedlots filled with thousands of cows just off the freeway. “This is where the steaks and hamburgers of America come from,” I announce to my wife, the disdain in my voice totally obvious. Indeed, as we traverse western Oklahoma and then approach Amarillo in Texas, the billboards become more frequent, announcing a free 72 oz. steak to anyone who can eat all of it with the accoutrements and fixin’s within one hour. The perfect combination of excess consumption, gluttony and the murder of innocents without a second thought.

The plains stretch out before us, and in the orange glow of the 9 pm sunset, we can see so far out to the horizon that I feel as if I can almost discern the curvature of the earth. Back in Maine, the husband of my wife’s friend was recounting tall tales of his military service in Montana. The terrain was so flat, he boasted, that a soldier going AWOL could still be seen for three days.

I now think I understand what he meant.

The Dead Place

Fort Lauderdale Cemetery

POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA

I seem to have lost my bearings, both as to space and time.  Funny how traveling can do that.  Once you’re out of your regular routine, it can be hard to remember what day it is or where you are.  For me, this effect has been compounded by the fact that I developed flulike symptoms somewhere around the Carolinas.  Upon our arrival in Florida, I more or less collapsed in our hotel room bed, sending my wife off to visit the friend she came to see.  I slept most of the day while they took a day trip down to Key West.  Only in the cool breeze of the evening did I venture outside to sit on one of the deck chairs overlooking the hotel pool.

Everything is so white here:  The furniture, the cars, the blinding midday sun.  It’s a Florida thing, I’m told, everything is white to reflect the intense sunlight.

For years, Florida’s Gold Coast has struck me as “the dead place.”  If you believe in hell, the climate here will give you a preview of coming attractions.  Not long ago, my father reminded me of a book he read years ago, Dying in the Sun, about retirees who leave the Northeast and Midwest to live their golden years in South Florida, endure illnesses, and be buried there.

Dad loves gallows humor.  He tells me that the only topics of conversation when you run into a fellow geezer in South Florida are:

  • Where you went to eat and did you go “early bird”
  • What the doctor said
  • “You hear who died?”

After an absence of a quarter of a century, I again find myself in the land of the dead.

South Florida. U.S. 1, known locally as Federal Highway. Late night Denny’s run.

“Got any fresh decaf?” I ask the server before I even sit down.

“I can make you a fresh pot, honey,” she replies before waddling off to the kitchen.

My wife and I peruse the menu and I spy our server sitting side saddle at a booth a few feet across the room. “You ready yet?” she calls out to us, not making a move in our direction. The poor woman weighs about as much as I do. The place is nearly empty, so she must be taking an opportunity for a moment’s rest. I can see how it would be tough for her to stand on her feet for an entire shift. Still, my wife is appalled at what passes for customer service in this place.

We attempt to put together our orders.

“Got any soup?”

“Nope, we throw it out at 10:00.”

“I’ll have oatmeal…”

“Nope, we only have it until 2:00.”

“Grits?”

“Nope.”

“Well then I’ll have a toasted bagel.”

“Nope. Only in the mornings. You can have an English muffin.”

It seems that the Grand Slam has become the Grand Strike Out.

We are used to good service at Denny’s all over the country, so we are unpleasantly surprised. We soon learn that this is not an anomaly. A few nights later, in Grants, New Mexico, I order potatoes and get rice. I order broccoli that arrives so cold, it is obvious that it is just out of the freezer, having seen insufficient time in the microwave. Getting a refill on my coffee is next to impossible. It is clear that customer service is not a priority. Disgusted, we give the remainder of our gift card to an elderly couple on our way out.  Denny’s had been crossed off our list.

But tonight, something else is on my mind.  It could be the combination of being sick and the weird feeling of being in a strange environment that was once familiar, decades ago.  After visiting the graves of one set of grandparents in New York City earlier during this trip, we have now stopped at the graves of my other set of grandparents, my Dad’s folks, near Fort Lauderdale. I had been to the cemetery in Queens many times as a kid with my parents, had a horribly emotional experience at my grandfather’s funeral when I was 21, and last set foot in the place at his unveiling, some 35 years ago. Aside from the stone bench being moved, a curb being installed and the cemetery having become even more crowded than it used to be, I found that not much had changed in the intervening decades. Back in the sixties and seventies, my parents would drag us out there a couple of times each year. I’d bring a siddur (prayer book) and read the Kaddish in the original Aramaic while my mother cleared the graves of loose greenery and then just sat there while my sisters, my father and myself grew increasingly restless and impatient. I was too young to appreciate Mom’s grief over her mother’s loss.

But here in Florida, this was different. For one thing, I did not attend either funeral and had never been to the graves before. For another, this was a mausoleum rather than a traditional six-feet-under burial site (although there were plenty of those on the grounds, too). I expected the graves to be indoors, in a building, but they were not. I knew the bodies had been cemented into a wall, but I did not expect the wall to be outdoors!

The elderly, chatty clerk at the desk in the tiny super air conditioned office of our hotel in Deerfield Beach insisted on drawing me a map of how to get to the cemetery.  It was not as if he was intimately familiar with the place; it’s just that he tried to map it on Google and couldn’t get his printer to cooperate when I informed him that I had to go because my wife was impatiently waiting for me in the car.  Not wanting to let me escape without assistance (a reflection of his kindness, as I could have mapped the route on my phone in a fraction of the time), he settled for a low-tech solution by consulting the map on his computer screen and hand drawing a facsimile therefrom.  His directions turned out to be perfect.

When my wife pulled up to the curb near an open door to the cemetery office, I stepped inside only to find that this was the location of a funeral.  I was sent around to the other side of the building.  There, we were told to pull into the rabbi’s space to wait for an employee who could assist us.  A woman emerged a few minutes later, spoke with us through the car window and then went back inside to retrieve a form.  I was to write down the names of the deceased.  The employee left and returned a few minutes later, stating that there were multiple people buried there with the same names.  She asked me for my grandparents’ dates of birth or death.  I wasn’t sure about my grandparents’ DOB, but I knew my grandfather had died in 1996.  When she next returned with a map of the property, the employee informed me that I had erred, that Grandpa had actually died in 1992.  This came as a surprise to me, as he and I had one of our best conversations in 1993, when my grandparents traveled to New York to be with my father during his surgery.  The depth of incompetence possible in customer service never ceases to amaze me.

Following the map, we drove as close as we could get to the block section where my grandparents’ remains are entombed.  I still had a little way to go on foot, negotiating the block numbers in the blazing South Florida midday heat, remaining in the shade as much as possible.  My grandparents’ marker was located on the top row of a mausoleum block stacked six high.  I found a nearby bench from which I could crane my head to read the writing high above me.  The marker (matzevah, as we call it in Hebrew) was unremarkable.  It contained my grandparents’ years of birth and death, not even full dates.  Not a word of Hebrew was in evidence, not even their Jewish names.  As disappointing as I found this, I suppose it reflects the reality of the situation:  Neither one had a religious bone in their bodies.  (And Grandpa, in fact, openly disdained and ridiculed religion of any type.)  There were two standard icons in the corners, a Star of David and a menorah, just like on hundreds of other nearby stones.  A cookie cutter memorial.  Except, I noted, for some brief descriptive information.  Grandpa was etched in stone as “a loyal friend” (Note to self:  Ask Dad about this.  This is a side of Grandpa with which I am totally unfamiliar.) and Grandma was “a beautiful, gracious lady.”  Gag.  As if this weren’t bad enough, the lower edge of the stone read “in love forever.”  While I initially found the sappiness intolerably saccharine, thinking about this for a few days left me with a sense of veritas.  My grandparents remained quite solicitous of each other into their elder years and, I had to admit, did indeed remain in love with each other all their lives.

And I am pleased to report that, cemetery office weirdos notwithstanding, the stone did indeed list the correct year of my grandfather’s death, 1996.  It’s hard to believe that twenty years have already elapsed since then.

Summer, 1996.  I am out of work (again) and living with my sister’s family in Boston.  I have developed a serious internet addiction that involves volunteering for AOL, staying online all night and sleeping during the day.  I am on a 14.4K dialup connection, due to which my family can’t get through to us late at night with the news of my grandfather’s death.  My brother-in-law in California IMs me to have my sister call our parents at once.  Mom and Dad offer to pay for a plane ticket for me to fly to Florida for the funeral, but I decline.  The thought of flying makes me incredibly anxious, exacerbating my panic disorder.  If I just stay here in Boston and don’t think about it, I’ll be alright, I tell myself.  I don’t feel emotionally stable enough to travel to a funeral 1,500 miles away.  I will crumple, I know, perhaps have one of my hyperventilation episodes like I did at my other grandfather’s funeral in 1980, and just make it worse for everyone.  I don’t think about how I might feel 20 years later.

I bid adieu to my grandparents’ graves, pick myself up off the bench and walk back to the air conditioned shelter of our car as quickly as I can.  I do not know how people manage to live in such a hellacious climate.  The sweat pours off my face and neck and I know I need a drink of cold water immediately.  As I open the car door, the blast of refrigerated air is as welcome relief as a man could ask for.

We’re done here.  Let’s go home to California.

 

 

Spin Cycle

Laundry Room

ROBINSONVILLE, MISSISSIPPI

If you mention Mississippi to me, I am more likely to think of the river that flows by this town, rather than of the state to which the river lent its name.  The wide Mississippi, slavery, steamships, tugboats, Huck and Jim on a raft.

Derived from the Ojibway language’s term for “great river,” the name “Mississippi” is a traditional schoolroom bugbear.  Difficult to spell correctly due to its repeating letters (I can still hear my niece triumphantly singing “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I!”), as kids we would appropriate the Magnolia State as a means of marking off time in seconds (“One, Mississippi, two, Mississippi, three, Mississippi, four, Mississippi…”).  Back in New York in the 1960s, this was an essential element of the neighborhood kids’ spirited games of hide ‘n seek and ringolevio (while I, disdaining anything physical, could be found indoors with a book).

But being in Mississippi “for real” is another story entirely.  In addition to being fried catfish capital of the world (bottom feeders, yuck!), Mississippi is now known for its gambling casinos.  The primary enclaves of slot machines and of dice tumbling upon felt tables are at Gulfport on the coast and here in the far northwest, in the exurbs of Memphis, Tennessee, in an area known as “Tunica Resorts.”

Everyone calls this place Tunica, although the casinos here are about ten miles away from the town of that name, in the unincorporated community of Robinsonville, on the Mississippi River.  Although the hotels are on the shore, apparently the casinos themselves must float in the Mississippi (à la riverboat gambling) to comply with state law.

The 90 degree temperature and the oppressive humidity of early summer are all but unbearable.  We made a reservation from the road, fully expecting everything to be sold out for the Memorial Day weekend.  While the hotel websites seemed to confirm this suspicion, we have found  that calling directly will often yield good news of a cancellation.  Our expectation proved correct, despite the fact that Clint Black is performing here this evening.

As we rolled into town, however, our primary concern was finding a place to do laundry.  Video poker would have to wait.  And I don’t mean maybe.

When you’re on the road for a month, you either have to bring A LOT of clothes or plan to do laundry regularly.  When wandering from one state (or country) to another, however, you never know exactly what you will or will not find.  Lesson learned:  Do not wait until the last possible moment to do laundry.  If you do, fate will laugh in your face and no washer/dryer combo with public access will be available anywhere near your location.

Somehow, we managed to violate this rule more than once during our travels across the USA, with the disgusting results you would pretty much expect.  I have been chastened.  I now understand that when my wife pronounces “we have to do laundry TODAY,” well, she ain’t kidding, amigo.

Our motto has been “have detergent pods and dryer sheets, will travel,” and we make every effort to keep our change purse fully stocked with quarters.  It is such a nice convenience when your hotel happens to have guest laundry facilities.  Unfortunately, many hotels don’t.  Then you get the pleasure of searching for a laundromat in an unfamiliar town.  This may take the form of Googling “laundromats near me,” asking for advice at the front desk or cruising the main drag to see what you can spy with your little eye.

As we had decided to pack only four days’ worth of clothes in light of our already jam-packed little car and our desire to avoid the necessity of removing suitcase after suitcase from the car when we stopped each night, we knew that our immediate future would be filled with many washers and dryers.  The scenario ended up playing out something like this:

Nashville – To pull a load of clothes out of the hotel’s washer after an hour, only to find them dripping, sopping wet, is far from encouraging. We had to rewash them in the only other machine and then endure the griping of crotchety employees who only grudgingly refunded our lost quarters.  Their attitude may have been a product of their inability to convince a tech come out and work on the broken washer.  Post an “out of order” sign?  Nah!

Alexandria, Virginia –  The hotel’s tiny laundry room on the top floor was locked.  We had to obtain a key from the front desk.  One washer, once dryer.  We tag teamed:  My wife would take the elevator up and put in a load, I’d set the timer on my phone, then head upstairs to switch the load.  Repeat.  Repeat.  The lint trap, which may not have been cleaned since the Vietnam War, looked like a breeding ground for mutant bacteria intent on taking over the earth.

Nanuet, New York – The typical situation:  Hotel contains no guest laundry facilities and our suitcases contain no clean clothes. After dinner, we drive around hunting for a laundromat that’s open late.  Google shows us the location of a fluff ‘n fold in downtown Pearl River by the railroad tracks.  Only the laundress with the heavy Spanish accent informs us that we won’t get our clothes back until tomorrow.  And how are we supposed to get dressed in the morning?  Black Hefty trash bags?  My wife ended up doing a load at another hotel in a blazingly hot laundry room without even a place to sit down.

Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod – Found a little laundromat out by the local supermarket.  Since there was no change machine, of course we ran out of quarters.  Bought a bunch of snacks at the Stop ‘n Shop to get change.

Florence, South Carolina – On the way to Florida, we are are running behind schedule, my wife needs a wifi connection so she can get some work done and, of course, we are out of clean clothes.  We pull into town eight o’clock at night and find an all-night laundromat with wifi.  After loading our clothes in two washers (one whites, one colors), we discover that no one on site has the wifi password.  My wife uses up data to connect to her personal hot spot and I sit out in the car to avoid the megadecibel blaring of the laundromat TV that is rattling my brains inside my head.

Which brings us here to Mississippi.  Dressing on our last morning in south Florida, I find that I have no clean socks.  I have to wear the same pair for a second day.  After a long day of driving, we end up in the panhandle, where we check into a hotel and collapse.  In the morning, I have no clean clothes at all.  Then we run into traffic and get into Jackson late.  My wife washes out some clothes in the hotel room sink and sprays everything with deodorant.  She lays them out on the air conditioner to dry, but I get cold in the night and turn off the A/C.  You guessed:  Damp clothes.  I don’t even want to think about what I must smell like.  Is this what it’s like for the homeless?

After registering at the front desk and confirming that the hotel has no guest laundry, we learn that one of the local RV parks has laundry facilities.  We head across the road to the Sam’s Town RV Park and find the little laundry room.  It is 90 degrees and incredibly humid.  We lug out all our clothes, load them into the washers and sit outside on a bench.  The combination of the heat and humidity makes me feel as if I am about to puke up my guts.  We take refuge in the car and crank the A/C to the max.  When the laundry is dry, we repair to our room on the third floor of the casino hotel, overlooking the slot machines floating on the Mississippi River.  We immediately fall asleep and don’t wake up until 5 am, when we take off out of town.  The property’s total take from our gambling revenue?  Zero.

Video poker will have to wait until another trip.  After all, we need our quarters for laundry.

Tunica

The Hollywood Casino gambling floor, floating in the Mississippi River.

Crackheads of Jackson

I-55

AT A TRUCK STOP SOMEWHERE IN MISSISSIPPI

Interstate 55 jets us straight north out of Jackson toward the gambling mecca of Tunica and the big city skyline of Memphis, just over the Tennessee line.  But here at the Pilot truck stop, a motorcycle club has just roared in for a pit stop, instantly monopolizing all the pumps.  There must be about 25 of them, all garbed in the same black leather jackets emblazoned with an iron cross and the logo “Hells Lovers, Louisiana.”  Some have added a skull for decoration. Hmm, is this anything like the Hell’s Angels?  Perhaps up from the Big Easy?

They are mostly African-American.  Big, beefy guys (and at least one woman), many bearded, some shiny-pated, polite and jovial.  Lots of banter as they escape the extreme humidity, piling into the air conditioning of the Taco Bell and settling down in pairs and fours to dig into chalupas, gorditas and Meximelts.  At the counter, a biker in a do-rag pays from a black leather change purse attached to his outfit by a thick steel chain.  Another hobbles across the fast food restaurant with the aid of an enormous whittled walking stick that appears to have been a tree limb in a former life.

We detoured to Jackson for my wife to visit an old friend whom she knew from church back when she was a teenager.  They have kept in touch via Facebook, text message and email for years.

I’d never been to Jackson, and the name evokes certain images in my ignorant mind.  Southern belles, magnolias, catfish and ham, Johnny Cash and June Carter duetting about the contempt bred by familiarity.  “We’ve been talking ’bout Jack-son, ever since the fire went out…”  Eudora Welty, Faulkner, John Grisham, Freedom Riders, The Help.

On the way in, around Mobile on Alabama’s Gulf coast, I got online to look for a place to stay the night.  Red Roof Inn, Econo-Lodge, Motel 6.  The usual suspects.  The reviews of the economy chains in Jackson were guarded at best on Kayak and were truly horrible on Yelp.  Filth, rudeness, noise, safety issues.  “Maybe we’ve gotten beyond this,” I suggested to my wife as I took the uncharacteristic step of reserving a $100 room at a Holiday Inn Express downtown.  The clerk on the phone provided impeccable customer service and we quickly and easily were set with exactly the room type we were looking for.  Let’s just say that when you have disabilities and particular requirements, getting what you need on the first try is nothing short of extraordinary.  “Southern hospitality,” I told my wife.  I was pleased as punch.

At dinner with my wife’s friend and her partner, my eyes were opened a bit.  They asked where we were staying in Jackson.  We told them.  “Ooo, better remove all valuables from your car,” we were warned.  Umm, that would be a tall order, as everything in our car is valuable to us — you know, our clothes, for example.  We began entertaining visions of having our car windows smashed, repair bills, insurance claims, premium hikes.  “Well, better take in anything that you can sell to buy crack,” our friend warned us.

And so, deflated, I procured a luggage cart and wrestled it out of the lobby as we proceeded to load every suitcase, tote bag and shopping sack out of our car.  The cart was so heavy that I was unable to maneuver it and had to get a staff member to handle this task.  We are keeping this cart in our room overnight, I thought.  No way are we unloading all this junk just to have to pile it right back up in the morning.  Crackheads of Jackson, you suck!

The Hell’s Lovers have finished their meals and begin filing out of the truck stop, ready to roar away and hit the road, as are we.  Safe travels, biker dudes.